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From India (Hyderabad, Kochi, Alappuzha, Munnar, Jaipur, Agra, Delhi)

By Sahand Rabbani

from Hyderabad and Kerala (Kochi, Alappuzha, Munnar)

Dear Friends,

After attending a wedding for two days in Hyderabad, we began our journey on Friday morning to Kerala. From the Taj Vivanta Hotel, I hailed a ride to the airport via Uber, having seen that the quoted price was only one-third that of the hotel's taxi.

The reason for this price differential, however, soon became apparent. In particular, the driver did not find the hotel precisely, but rather pulled over on the side of the road outside of the compound. Only minutes later did I realize that he had been waiting there in his dilapidated, sputtering car with a half-hearted air conditioner. Once en route, we wove through the disorganized haze of vehicles small and large: from three-wheeled autorickshaws to monstrous coaches. Traffic jerked and heaved amid blaring horns and the rainbow of colors on the awnings and advertisements that are so iconic of the tropical world. Somewhere in this dense sensory jungle, our front bumper hurled itself into the rear of another car, and soon we were pulled over on the side of the bustling dusty road, our driver engaged with the two from the offended vehicle.

I waited in the car for a few minutes, hoping that the incident would resolve itself, but our departure time grew closer and who knew how many obstacles beleaguered the path ahead. I left the car (carefully) and approached the three who were huddled around the dented bumper. I explained in signs and words that we were headed to the airport for a flight and that we needed to make our way. The afflicted were surprisingly accommodating, for my flight was hardly their concern and the fault was evidently with our driver. Despite this, they released the driver, who was furiously scrubbing the dent with a rag, and then presumably conducted the local equivalent of "exchanging information." We were on our way again, and the remainder of our journey transpired without further incident.

At the airport, we went through a token security check, a pervasive concept with which we had already become accustomed. Major gathering points such as malls, hotels, and airports have elaborate productions of security that seem, beyond the initial glance, to be entirely useless against a real attack.

We were booked on Indian low-cost carrier GoAir. The price was right and the service was decent, but the most unexpected aspect of the flight was the demographic constitution of the passengers. Nearly ninety-percent were men! They were pushy, aggressive men who hurled themselves in the direction of their destination with no regard for their surroundings. They turned the lavatory into a sticky urinal that I wouldn't graze with a ten-foot stream of piss. They paid no respect to the institution of the queue, the most respected and paramount order of first-come-first-served that is central to the smooth functioning of a society. They photographed and filmed every aspect of the flight from the gate to the cabin.

The plane was new and the flight was smooth. Upon arriving at Cochin International Airport and wrestling our way onto and off of the terminal bus and to the prepaid taxi counter, we were in a car on our way to the hotel. This experience taught me an important lesson in getting one's lot in India, to take no prisoners and to follow the Gilded Rule. That is, to survive, do onto others as they do onto you.

Kochi (formerly Cochin) is the capital and economic center of the southwestern state of Kerala. Situated on the coast, Kerala spans peninsulas, islands, and the mainland. It is a popular tourist resort, particularly among Indians and, we would learn, Arabs. The regional language is Malayalam, belonging to the same family as Tamil and not the Indo-European family to which Hindi and many other Indian languages belong. The state has a uniquely large Christian population. It is replete with churches. Frankly, it is a phenomenon that initially jarred my narrow mind, for brown-skinned Christians is not an association to which I am accustomed. (The sensation is similar, for example, to when seeing a Caucasian speak Mandarin.) Incidentally, Kerala is also a stronghold for the Communist Party of India, whose hammer-and-sickle red flags adorn the roadsides.

Our hotel was situated on the coast of the mainland in the Ernakulam district of Kochi. It was positioned for quick access to an extensive pedestrian promenade. The first evening, we took a boat cruise, which introduced us to the various islands, the historic colonial facades, and the so-called Chinese fishing nets that are large rigged contraptions built on the coastline and used to scoop fish out of the water. Immediately following our cruise, a violent thunderstorm erupted, which kept us inside for the remainder of the night. (The next day, we would see a car crushed by a fallen tree trunk on the side of the road.)

The following morning, we strolled along the promenade amid the stark contrast between the picturesque views of the water and the hopelessly littered walkway. Men and women lingered on the benches and stoops, presumably in anticipation of their workday. It was too early for the shops, so the boarded-up storefronts only reinforced the desolate portrait.

Afterwards, a taxi drove us two hours south to the town of Alappuzha where rural communities live on the banks of narrow tributaries and canals. Like many tourists who visit the area, we hired a houseboat for the day and sat lazily on wicker chairs as we cruised by the lakes and rice paddies and the locals conducting their daily lives. A private cook on our boat prepared an elaborate traditional Kerala lunch. He served us on banana leaves that the driver harvested from the banks of the waterway. There was grilled fish, chicken curry, steamed rice, pickled limes, and at least six different spiced preparations of vegetables. The meal was delicious. If it were not so hot, I may have had a chance at finishing every dish.

Nearly five hours after we had launched from the shore, our boat finally returned to dock. Another two hours later had us back in Kochi just before sunset. We set out to visit the westernmost peninsula, a neighborhood called Fort Kochi and home to the more presentable tourist establishments. We rode the local ferry for four rupees each (about six cents), which departed from a station along the promenade. On the other end, we found that even the manicured parts of town were still rough and dusty. We enjoyed an amazing dinner of spiced jumbo prawns and a fish curry cooked in banana leaf at the Fusion Bay restaurant, concluding what is hitherto by far the most delicious day of our trip.

The next day, we left Kochi in the early morning for the four-hour drive to the lush green hills of Munnar. Our driver, sent by the hotel in Munnar, was the most skilled I had encountered yet. He knows this particular route well with all of its blind turns and barreling tour buses. He made liberal use of his horn and molested every vehicle in his way no matter the size. The tortuous journey could not end too soon.

We arrived at our hotel in Munnar before noon. A new resort built into the hillside, it afforded stunning views of the area's tea plantations. We set out on foot for a hike to a nearby waterfall and then up the winding mountain road into the Attukad Estate, a tea plantation belonging to the megalithic Tata conglomerate. The road took us by the outpost villages where the plantation workers and their families live year-round in company-provided barracks. In each little community was a Hindu shrine and somewhere among the tea bushes were loudspeakers projecting Malayalam songs, cultivating a mystic ambiance. As we walked from one village to the next, the songs of one faded and gave way to the crescendoing tunes of the next. In this manner, we walked for hours, all the while awestruck by the idyllic landscape.

It is now the following day, and we have concluded our visit to Kerala. I write this letter aboard a much more gender-balanced GoAir flight to Jaipur via Ahmedabad. The next portion of our trip will be hot and crowded no doubt, but fun and enlightening in its own right. Stay tuned.


from Jaipur and Agra

Dear Friends,

After settling in at the hotel in Jaipur, we were ready for a late dinner at the widely regarded Handi Restaurant. I was looking forward to trying the famous Rajasthani dish of laal maas, a spicy mutton curry. In truth, I was underwhelmed by Handi's implementation of the dish but without any actual point of reference. It was spicy, as promised, but lacking in flavor. I wondered if better renditions existed. Something about the "multi-cuisine" tag line of Handi had me a bit wary at the outset. I feel that any restaurant serving Indian food and Italian pasta at the same time is unlikely to do either particularly well. (This "multi-cuisine" concept is widespread in India, it seems; I have seen many awnings and hotel restaurants advertise it proudly.)

After our late dinner, we foolishly elected to go for a stroll to Jaipur's historical old city, sometimes called the "Pink City" for its distinctive facades of the eponymous color. We planned what should have been an easy three-kilometer walk to the Hawa Mahal, a palace whose facade is particularly notable for its intricate array of bay windows.

What ensued, however, was a tortuous journey along dark roads plagued by myriad threats to life and limb, the stuff of which video games are made. How can I convey the extent of our persistent anxiety through this nightmarish passeggiata? Intractable sidewalks or a complete lack of them forced us onto the busy road. Cars flew by while autorickshaws and cycle rickshaws slowed down to hassle us constantly, some following us for as long as a kilometer. Street crossings against six lanes of disorganized and impatient drivers were tense as the traffic signals made no concessions to pedestrians. Piles of stray dogs adorned the boarded-up stalls of the bazaar. Our footsteps sent swarms of beetles scattering into the orifices of the haphazard and decrepit concrete slabs. An obstacle from one side would send us veering toward the other, only to come face-to-face with a free-range cow who paused for no one and nothing. Eventually, we did reach the Hawa Mahal, and its uplit pink facade was nothing short of the lore. So we waited by it for our Uber ride to find us as we danced and swayed to avoid the stray dogs. Not long before midnight, we were back in the luxurious embrace of our hotel room having learned a valuable lesson.

The following morning before setting out for the sites, we considered plans for the next day's transit to Delhi via Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. The prevailing option was to hire a driver for the 4.5-hour drive to Agra and the subsequent 3.5-hr drive to Delhi, but eight hours of driving in one day, interrupted by a scorching hot visit to the country's top and possibly most crowded landmark, seemed a bit too much. We considered the comfortable morning express train for the first leg and a drive for the second. To book the train tickets, however, we were told to go to railway station.

The station proved to be an overwhelming menagerie, and the ticket office did not present itself immediately. Attempts to locate it amid the chaos were constantly thwarted by touts. We bounced around from one desk to another until establishing that the office was in a separate building across the street, so we swam through the viscous pool of tuk-tuk drivers to the special ticket line for foreigners. Here, we encountered the immensely bureaucratic process of purchasing a ticket, which involved filling out a nontrivial form and waiting for an indeterminate amount of time to be processed. This was enough to swing the pendulum in favor of the eight-hour drive! So we aborted the train mission and immediately hopped into a taxi for the Amer Fort.

Regarded as Jaipur's preeminent attraction, the Amer Fort was constructed over four hundred years ago under Mughal rule. It is a vast maze of chambers, courtyards, hallways, stairs, and turrets that sits atop a hill outside of town. The sun-parched path to reach the fort from the base is well worth it. Upon careful reflection, I consider it one of the most beautiful historical monuments that I have ever seen (in the company of the Alhambra and, later, the Taj Mahal). I could not choose between the sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and the intricate inlaid patterns of the interior. The Ganesh Pol and the Sheesh Mahal are two particularly stunning sites within the fort.

We had no concept of the layout or space, but our completionist mindset required that we visit every chamber. So after we had ambled around in a Brownian fashion such that we would have seen at least ninety-five percent of the fort with ninety-five percent probability, we set out for our next destination. We hailed a ride via Uber to the Anokhi Museum of Hand Printing. (Uber was invaluable as we would use it for seven segments on this day and many more times in subsequent days.) We learned about the art of block printing, where wooden blocks are carved to form a relief pattern and used to stain designs on fabric.

From here, we took the narrow and winding road less traveled to the Nahargarh Fort, not to see the fort itself but rather for its singular, comprehensive view of Jaipur City. The view, however, did not come cheap. To reach the rampart's vista point, I trudged through an alley of rubble and carefully avoided a mischievous troop of monkeys. Indeed, Jaipur may inadvertently rival the most renowned zoos for its impressive collection of free-roaming wildlife: dogs, cows, monkeys, elephants, boars, goats, camels, and peacocks, to name a few. Like many things in Jaipur, the site was worth the expense of peril.

We descended back to the Pink City for our final sightseeing activity of the day: the City Palace. Formerly the residence of the Maharaja of Jaipur, the City Palace is yet another beautifully ornate and extensive complex. We enjoyed discovering its nooks for as long as we could tolerate the oppressive desert sun, and when the heat was too much we retreated to the refrigerated hotel room. That night, we enjoyed a civilized meal at Cinnamon, a restaurant in the super luxe Taj Jai Mahal Palace Hotel.

The next day, we set out for the 4.5-hour drive to Agra and the Taj Mahal. The majority of the ride was smooth and comfortable on account of the excellent condition of the highways, far better than what we had known from our driving in Kerala. The Taj Mahal itself lived up to all of its promise. It is a bright white marble tomb commissioned by Shah Jahan, a Mughal emperor, for his favorite wife who died in childbirth. Our luck had it that April 18 is World Heritage Day, so entry to the Taj Mahal was free to all visitors. Despite this, the site was not unreasonably crowded and we were able to enjoy it satisfactorily.

We decided to skip lunch after our Taj Mahal visit as the fare in Agra was not attractive. Instead, we embarked on the next segment of our drive to arrive at our final stop in India, the enormous and bustling metropolis of Delhi.


from Delhi

Dear Friends,

It was after about an hour of cruising around speculatively that I realized our driver had no idea where the hotel was located. At every red light or congested standstill, he would roll down the window and ask a nearby driver or pedestrian to point him in the direction of India Gate, a Delhi landmark. From the cached Google map on my phone, however, I could see that India Gate was nowhere near the Taj Palace in the Diplomatic Enclave. I wondered if the driver, from Jaipur, only knew how to find the Diplomatic Enclave relative to India Gate. (This reminds me of the joke in which a mathematician is asked how to boil cold water and then later asked how to boil warm water, responding to the latter: first cool down the water to reduce it to the previously solved problem.) At this point, I decided to intervene and directed us through the hub-and-spoke network of roundabouts to the hotel, only regretting that I had not done so sooner.

That evening, we enjoyed dinner at the world-famous Bukhara Restaurant in the neighboring hotel, whose spiced leg of lamb and dal makhani have earned it a place among San Pellegrino's fifty best restaurants in Asia. Afterwards, I stumbled back to the hotel in extreme crapulence, squeezing clumsily amid the slow-moving caravan of limos displaying miniature world flags.

The next morning, I insisted that we orient ourselves with the metro system. What looked like a nearby metro station on the map proved to be quite a difficult station to access in practice. While the Euclidean distance to our hotel was small, the station was separated from us by a nearly insurmountable highway junction. In fact, we found this to be true of many Delhi metro stops, frequent but inconvenient to access by foot. Metro rides would often require an accompanying tuk-tuk transfer or otherwise harrowing journey on foot.

On the other hand, the trains were modern and in the style of the enviable Hong Kong MTR, with continuous, air-conditioned carriages. The blob (queues do not exist in India) for the ticket machines was often big, and many of the machines would not accept bills larger than twenty rupees because they could not produce sufficient change. In fact, there were times when we feared that we could not purchase tickets because the 100-rupee note (about $1.50) was the smallest denomination we had. Once the ticket-purchasing obstacle was overcome, there was a perfunctory pass through a metal detector and a frisking before the turnstiles and the platform. We learned that nothing in Delhi comes easy and that the transportation market is efficient. That is, every mode is equally inconvenient and plagued by its own obstacles.

This did not prevent us from having a great time. We first visited the scorching, dusty, and crowded streets of Old Delhi and the Chandni Chowk bazaar. Parts of the bazaar were narrow indoor passageways that reminded me of the inside of Chungking Mansions, a multipurpose grungy building in Hong Kong in which one can find anything and everything for sale. Other parts were an outdoor topographical obstacle course teeming with vendors, shoppers, and suppliers barreling through carrying impossibly large cargo on their heads. The payload-to-porter weight ratio resembled that of ants.

We emerged from the bustling market onto the vast open space in front of the Red Fort. We briefly considered paying a visit inside but decided not to. Instead, we followed a wide boulevard on foot to the famous tea shop of Aap Ki Pasand. Coddled within the refrigerated and insulated walls of this upscale shop, we sampled three flushes of Darjeeling tea and convinced ourselves that we could discern their differences. I purchased a pouch of the second flush.

For lunch, we found our way to a Parsi cafe. I pause here to share a bit of history that I learned. There are two distinct demographic groups of ethnic Iranian Zoroastrians in India, the Parsis and Iranis, who emigrated from Persia between the 8th and 10th Centuries and the 19th and 20th Centuries respectively. They both fled Muslim persecution, the former from Arab conquerors and the latter from the Qajar rulers. Both ethnic groups have long since lost the Persian language but have retained their religious and culinary distinction. Evidently, the entrepreneurial migrants are known for their foray into hospitality, giving rise to the Parsi and Irani cafe genre. The literature is a bit hand-wavy at this point, merging the two categories of Parsi/Irani eateries into one and skirting any attempt to reconcile them. The fare itself is closer to Indian than to Persian, but clearly exhibits characteristics of the latter: elaborate preparations of rice and the merging of intensely sour flavors with the sweetness of fruit. Our lunch consisted of a chicken biryani and a chicken apricot stew, both of which were exceptionally flavorful. To drink, we enjoyed a buttermilk and mint concoction that is clearly a relative of the Persian doogh.

Later that day, we visited the concentric ring roads and colonial architecture of Connaught Place, which houses the flagship store of my favorite watch brand, Titan. From there, we found our way to the upmarket boutique outdoor shopping area of Khan Market, which has one of the few Anokhi stores that sell the block printing fabrics we had seen in the affiliated museum in Jaipur.

On our second full day in Delhi, we started at the Lotus Temple, one of the world's eight Bahái'i Houses of Worship at the time of writing. It was an impressive concrete structure resembling a budding flower, but I still find the one in Wilmette, Illinois far more visually appealing. We walked through the Lodhi Gardens, a rare hassle-free oasis of a public park. The grounds contain a few ornate Muslim tombs that are most striking for their absence of self-proclaimed "government tour guides" insisting on exchanging historical fiction for money. We visited Hauz Khas Village, which consists of a dense row of eateries and cafes that hug a historic and monument-rich park. Unfortunately, our visit here was brief and incomplete since we only saw the underbelly of tacky nightclubs as we waded through littered alleys and dense clouds of flies. We had spent too much time outdoors in the unbearable heat already, so we sought shelter in a cool cafe and awaited our Uber ride to take us back to the hotel. That evening, we enjoyed the chef's tasting menu at the haute-cuisine restaurant Indian Accent.

On Saturday, the ultimate day of our trip, the prophesy was finally fulfilled. I spent the entire morning and a large portion of the afternoon acquainting myself with the bathroom. I explored its mechanics closely, running a number of experiments including one to measure the refill time of the tank. I delayed check-out as long as possible to facilitate my research.

Of course, I eventually tired of it. By three in the afternoon, we were out on the streets again, and this time without the promise of a comfortable room to which to return. We visited Humayun's Tomb, another beautiful Mughal relic. We saw India Gate, swarming with tourists and unsightly amid all of the surrounding construction. From there, we walked along the shabby Rajpath promenade for about two kilometers to the Parliament House. We took the metro for one final touristic pilgrimage to visit the Jama Masjid, a stunning Mughal mosque.

The path from the Jama Masjid metro station to the mosque itself was swarming with people by early evening. Street vendors touted their mysterious wares while the pious moaned and the beggars wailed. The tall flight of stairs leading to the mosque's entrance was full of people languishing on the steps. Limbs reached out toward us from the throbbing mass as we waded through. The scene was reminiscent of those Renaissance paintings of the Second Coming of Christ. Atop this pageant sat a mosque gnome on a plastic chair policing the open entryway, selectively charging an admission fee to those who looked like they may be non-worshipers. It was not our place to enter that evening. For one, I was not thrilled about the no-shoes policy after a recent episode of stepping on a rusty pin at another no-shoes place of worship (see "from Yangon") and it was not clear what over-worn unwashed loaner clothes we may have to don in order to comply with the female dress code. In any event, the anthropological experience from the outside may have been just as thrilling, and my time-away-from-toilet was approaching reckless levels under the circumstances. In this manner, we made our final stop at the Khan Market for a chicken kebab roll at Khan Chacha and returned to the hotel to retrieve our bags. With our flight departing an hour after midnight, we arrived at the airport with ample time to spare.

I conclude this letter from Chicago, now one week since our return. We had a wonderful time during our eleven days in India. While the intense immersion and constant need to cope at every juncture may not have fostered a relaxing vacation, it did make for a thrilling and rewarding experience. The interspersed grit and luxury also ensured that relief was always close at hand. I cannot help but compare Delhi to other sprawling cities of the rapidly developing world. It relation to Cairo, for example, it was a much more welcoming and navigable place, but still its infrastructure, pedestrian accommodations, and visual aesthetic are a far cry from Mexico City. India, like Egypt, is endowed with some of the most stunning historical architecture in world. Interestingly, nearly all of the most famous surviving structures--the mausoleums, mosques, forts, and palaces--were constructed by the Muslims. Its rich history, however, feels oppressed by widespread poverty. I suppose that is why, like in Egypt, historical tourism invites constant exploitation. Every corner is plagued by touts and scams. Unlike Egypt, however, I believe that India is worth multiple visits. I am left with great memories, lingering food poisoning, and a burning curiosity and desire to see much more.


Copyright © 2024 Sahand Rabbani
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